In a world marked by pain and damage, it’s difficult to put down our shields. Most of us have them; I have several. Usually we are born with them, but sometimes we make them. We hold these shields in front of our faces, to protect ourselves from the pain of others.
All the structural biases embedded in our social existence are shields. Sometimes they are difficult to perceive, especially when we know we don’t personally rape women or lynch black people or abuse people in wheelchairs. The very nature of structural prejudice means that it remains hidden, even if that means editing huge swathes of human experience out of the field of perception.
It’s depressing, for example, how often the fortunate classes outsource their own bigotries to easily mocked gargoyles like Pauline Hanson. Structural prejudice is equally as prevalent in the middle and upper classes, even among those who claim they are of the left. When dressed up in respectable clothes, structural prejudice is certainly way more harmful. The invisible forces of structural prejudice shape our governments, our culture, our media. They determine what is the rule and what is the exception. Their mechanisms ensure that nothing will change; at worst, it must merely appear to change.
Power is always flexible in its own self-preservation. I often remember the rebel aristocrat Tancredi, in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s masterpiece The Leopard, advising the Leopard on how to preserve his family’s privilege: ‘If we want things to stay as they are, everything will have to change.’ Think, for example, of how the right wing has so successfully adopted the politics of grievance and victimhood, and pushes the prominence of the odd exceptional women to bruit its own denatured version of feminism.
I summon a special pox on those who use the term ‘identity politics’ as a catch-all to marginalise various movements that are attempting to address the structural bigotries of colonial, capitalist, patriarchal society. The struggles against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism are all demands for justice that stem from searing suffering, and they all have common aims. But too often their particular struggles are dismissed as of secondary importance.
It’s a catch 22. If women, for example, are forced to pursue their aims without men because they find sexism rampant among those who should be their allies, then it’s much easier to claim that their struggle only pertains to their ‘identity’. I’m as aware as anyone that an atomised culture that places the isolated self at the centre of political action has intractable problems. But if a collective movement reproduces the prejudices of the society it claims to be trying to improve, it inevitably sows the seeds of its own disintegration.
Structures of inequity lead to real human suffering, but the demand for justice so often arrives with hidden caveats. We are proud, for example, that Australia was the second country in the world to give women the vote, but somehow forget that legislated discrimination against Indigenous Australians voting – including, of course, Indigenous women – weren’t fully removed until 1983.
Men who claim to be passionate about social justice can get pretty hostile when it’s pointed out that this includes treating women with the same respect as their male peers. Similarly, feminist women can actively reinforce racism or transphobia. Those of us in societies benefiting from the spoils of colonialism would prefer not to unlock the Pandora’s Box of what this actually implies. And so it goes, vibrating through the whole sorry network of power relations.
Most of us have shields that protect us against some aspect of systemic harm. Some of us, the most vulnerable to the winds of outrageous fortune, have no shields at all. And yet even the well-intentioned often erase the suffering of others. We put up our shields.
Behind those shields, we are safe from understanding the dimensions of the daily struggle against different forms of unfairness. We are protected, too, from recognising our own pain, and we don’t have to think about how it is linked to the pain of others. If we did begin to comprehend, we would be forced to recognise that the only ethical response is to put our shields down. And yes, that is hard. But it’s necessary.
Audre Lorde said it better, of course, in Sister Outsider:
You do not have to be me in order for us to fight alongside each other. I do not have to be you to recognise that our wars are the same. What we must do is commit ourselves to some future that can include each other and to work toward that future with the particular strengths of our individual identities. And in order for us to do this, we must allow each other our differences at the same time as we recognise our sameness.
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